Opinion

In the world of social media, when a life is ‘lived’ online, how authentic can it really be? By Clem Bastow.

I tweet, therefore I am …

In the dark days when I was a music journalist, there was a phrase bands would often belch into my Dictaphone: “We’re making the music we love. If anyone else likes it, that’s just a bonus.”

Despite its flowery overtones, there was a shirking of responsibility inherent in it: “If you don’t like what my music has to say, you can get stuffed.” 

I think about that phrase a lot these days, not just because I’m in recovery from music journalism, but because it reminds me of so many people’s approach to social media: “I am just expressing myself authentically online. If you don’t like it, you are censoring me.”

This authentic expression means everything is public: good times, bad times; emails and text messages from friends and family become “content”; emotional woes are tracked in real time with appropriate YouTube videos and animated GIFs.  

This idea of the authentic online self is no doubt amusing to anyone who has even a passing grasp of Baudrillard’s notion of simulacra, but Web 2.0 has tipped us headfirst into an era of unparalleled access to self-expression, to the point where not reacting or “sharing” becomes a “tree falls in the woods” question: if it doesn’t get documented on social media, is it real? 

A prominent death last month brings these questions, some of them unanswerable, to the fore. The loudest voices tend to belong to those whose quest for authenticity means that any grief shown by others for a person they “didn’t know personally” is bunkum. Beneath that roar is the strange quest for cultural/emotional capital inherent in demonstrating how much you care: “I once interacted with the deceased in a third-hand manner, this is a tough time for me.” 

Somewhere, deep in the muck underneath all these people, is the astounding insensitivity of those who use another person’s death to prove a point, create content, or increase their ticket sales, or turn everything into a Twitter trending topic. Hashtag Jill Meagher, hashtag grief, hashtag trolling.

I’m not immune to this; I am just as likely as the next person to react with sorrow when someone I admire dies. The problem is that while suicide or cultural responses to death are extremely complex, discussion of them via social media is, generally, not. And, likewise, I wonder just how “authentic” a life lived online can be. As writer Annika Blau put it, “Can you properly experience and record a moment at the same time? Or does the very act of observing the experience change its nature?”

Those of us who have been online longer – since Web 1.0, if you like – are perhaps more aware of the fact that even an “authentic” online life is still a performance. What may look like a warts-and-all discussion of my emotional state to others is probably 3 per cent of what I am really experiencing. How often has even the most casual user of social media been greeted “in real life” with words to the effect of, “Wow, you’re quite different offline”? We are all but players in the theatre of the internet – it’s just that some, in their refusal to see their online engagement as anything less than pure truth, star in The Truman Show.

Slavoj Žižek explored this when Time made “You” its Person of the Year in 2006: “In the same way that decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee without being the real thing, my online screen persona, the ‘you’ that I see there, is a decaffeinated self … The fact that I perceive my virtual self-image as mere play thus allows me to suspend the usual hindrances which prevent me from realising my ‘dark half’ in real life. My electronic id is given wing.”

But that’s a more complex reading than most are prepared to give themselves. “I tweet, therefore I am” seems to be more par for the course. “Thoughts and opinions are my own,” as the popular disclaimer runs. 

The flipside to all this is that those who live their lives authentically and honestly online seem more willing than ever to consume utter bullshit. The quick-share nature of social media ensures that any “awesome”, “inspiring” or “heartbreaking” photo or “article” is given only the briefest consideration before it is reblogged and tweeted to kingdom come, despite the extraordinary level of access to actual information we enjoy online.

“I think many people are desperate to find something fantastic in the world,” says Matt Novak, editor of Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, who has debunked countless viral hoaxes and faked photos. “In the case of beautiful fakes, I guess people are looking for some proof that people can make something beautiful and seemingly impossible if they just put their minds together.”

“Liking”, reblogging, sharing: this is the engine that drives the relentless optimism and wonderment of content monsters such as Upworthy, ViralNova and Distractify. You’ll no doubt recognise their hyperbolic headlines – “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular” (yes, wondtacular) – from your Facebook feed. Upworthy doesn’t necessarily deal in hoaxes, but its unerring positivity is a falsehood of a different colour. 

What does this have to do with anything other than the death of the intellect? Tying the whole circus of authentic emotion together, in my experience it is not Great Aunt Martha types who clog your feeds with Upworthy’s bilge, but rather those who are committed to the construction of an authentic online self. The ones who are outraged about misogyny and injustice also want you to experience how “this nine-year-old’s talent show audition will definitely blow your mind”. 

Authentic expression online tends to take in negative emotions – alienation, shame at the government’s behaviour, grief at death or injustice, the ins and outs of mental illness – so you could argue that the apparent irony in these people’s consumption of click-bait uplift is, instead, a sort of “seeing is believing” gesture. But that in itself is, surely, about on a par with the lyrics of the Philip Glass-like South Park Christmas play: “Happy, happy, happy, everybody’s happy; happy happy, happyhappyhappy.” 

Are we really that happy? Was your mind really blown by that nine-year-old’s performance? Did that person’s death truly affect you deeply? 

In truth, it doesn’t really matter either way. In the panopticon of social media, what matters is that you were seen to care, and seen to “engage”.  If anyone else ‘likes’ it, that’s just a bonus.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2014 as "I tweet, therefore I am …". Subscribe here.

Clem Bastow
is a Melbourne-based writer and critic.

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